October 7, 2007

Oh, the Ignobility

We U of C students are mighty proud of our record when it comes to Nobel Laureates. Everyone has no doubt seen the t-shirt that lists all 75 recepients that either attended, taught, or researched at the University. And while some of the names are stretches--J.M. Coetzee only taught here for a year, after all--there are enough Saul Bellows and Milton Freedmans on there to validate our school spirit.While the school's collection of laureates is nothing short of prolific, it has unfortunately not had the same type of success when it comes to the Nobel Prize's black sheep of a brother, the Ignoble Prizes. Awarded every year for "Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK," previous winners include Aston Univerity's Robert Matthews, who won the Ignoble Prize for Physics in 1996. Matthews was rewarded for his scientific investigation of Murphy's law, and whether or not toast usually lands with the butter side down. From his research paper, entitled "Tumbling Toast, Murphy's Law, and the Fundamental Constants":

When the problem of toast sliding off a plate or table is examined more carefully - with the toast modelled as a thin, rigid, rough lamina - it turns out that the public perception is quite correct. Toast does indeed have a natural tendency to land butter side down, essentially because the gravitation torque induced as the toast topples over the edge of the plate/table is insufficient to bring the toast butter-side up again by the time it hits the floor. Note that this has nothing to do with some aerodynamic effect caused by one side being buttered - it is just gravity, plus a bit of friction.However, I go on to show that the tumbling toast phenomenon has far deeper roots than one might expect. If tables were a lot higher - around 3 metres high - the problem of toast landing butter-side down would go away, as the toast would have enough time to complete a full rotation.
Well, duh.This year's winners were honored in a ceremony at MIT Friday night, and, for the 16th consecutive year, no U of C students or faculty were among the lucky winners. Since 1991, when the Hydrogen bomb inventor Edward Teller earned the Ignoble Peace Prize "for his lifelong efforts to change the meaning of peace as we know it," the school has been shut out of the award. For an institution like the U of C, this is a slap in the face. Hasn't the committee even heard of John Meirsheimer?